American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell. Encounter Books, US$28.99. 255 pages with Index
America seems to have gone mad. It still is the world’s richest and most powerful country, with the oldest continuous government on earth, yet it is in deep crisis and divided between hostile camps that reject each other’s legitimacy. Paradoxically, what made America strong also makes it inherently fragile. Joshua Mitchell, a professor of government at Georgetown University, presents a cogent diagnosis of America’s dark night of the soul in a remarkable new book that should be required reading for anyone who wants to make sense of today’s United States.
A Chinese acquaintance quips, “Now you are having your own Cultural Revolution.” In fact, the criticism and self-criticism sessions imposed on corporate employees and school personnel to root out hidden racism recall Mao’s Red Guards. But America is not China, and this is not a Cultural Revolution; it is an eruption of Christian religious feeling channeled into secular obsessions.
Prof. Mitchell’s thesis will elicit skepticism among overseas readers who are unaccustomed to viewing politics through the prism of religion, but America can be understood in no other way. He diagnoses a spiritual crisis in America, as behooves a scholar of Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1840 called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” In most parts of the world religion seems a fossil, but America cannot be understood except as a Christian religious project. When American religion goes wrong, Mitchell argues, it goes mad.
American culture is a conundrum to the rest of the world, and to Americans themselves. Consider for example the susceptibility of Americans to self-loathing. Nearly three out of five young Americans think their country evinces “systemic racism,” which is to say that it is inherently wicked. One of the three top national dailies, the New York Times, claims through its 1619 Project that America was founded on slavery, rather than the desire for “government of the people, for the people and by the people,” in Lincoln’s words. Critics from the patriotic camp revile this view as American self-hatred. That is noteworthy. The peoples of the world, no matter how unpleasant their history, do not, in general, hate themselves, any more than fish hate being wet. They simply remain that they have been until memory fades into the mists of time.
Among all the world’s peoples, the term “self-hatred” appears regularly in reference to only two, the Americans and the Jews. No-one maintains that France or Japan or Sweden is wicked by nature; other countries may have wicked rulers, but otherwise, they are simply what they are. Pundits from Russell Kirk to Samuel Huntington have tried with little purchase to characterize America in terms of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.
American self-hatred is possible because America, like biblical Israel, was founded for a declared purpose. Lincoln famously called the Americans an almost-chosen people; I do not think he intended it as a compliment; to call a people “almost chosen” is like calling a woman “almost pregnant.” The low-church Protestant dissenters who founded New England sought to emulate biblical Israel (less so their southern allies in the 1776 revolt against Britain). The term “Jewish self-hatred” was coined in the 1920s to characterize Jews who eschewed Jewish particularly in favor of universalizing European culture, as I recount in this essay for The American Interest. This is possible only because the Jews have a vivid memory of a distinct founding with a declared purpose, and the same is true of the United States.
There is one notable exception, but that proves the rule, for example, the case of German self-hatred; after the murder of six million Jews during World War II, many Germans have come to hate being German. But that, as the joke goes, is the fault of the Jews.
A national purpose is not enough to constitute a nation. Israel may have a mission, namely to proclaim an ethical code to the world, but it also is a nation composed of real people who raise children in its traditions and maintains its continuity through flesh and blood as well as religious inspiration. Jewish identity has 3,000 years of DNA to fall back on. It does no good to call America a “propositional nation,” as did the Catholic scholar John Courtney Murray. “Culture,” I argued contra Murray, “is the context in which we perceive things, which we receive from our ancestors and pass down to our descendants. It is pre-rational, instinctive rather than intellectual, a manifestation of who we are rather than what we think. It is the way in which we cannot help but understand the world.
Mitchell’s accomplishment in American Awakening is to show that American self-loathing arises from a uniquely Christian sensibility of sin and redemptive suffering, transplanted into a perverse secular ideology. Identity politics is a form of secularized Puritanism, as surely as the ritualized hunt for racists at American universities is a farcical reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, which the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts first supported and later regretted.
America has no collective characteristics like the long-evolved nations of the world. There is no American stereotype, and therefore no such thing as an “American” joke. (The exception that proves the rule has the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion tell him, “What do you mean ‘we,’ Paleface?”). As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there is no “there” there, no sense of being “American” under the skin, of belonging to a specific place and sharing a common unspoken view of things. In place of the collective cultures of the Old World, America offers an individual journey: It is the Christian’s journey to redemption allegorized in John Bunyan’s 1687 novel Pilgrim’s Progress, emulated in American popular culture (and explicitly so in America’s national novel, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn). This journey has no earthly terminus; it can only be started and re-started. America lives on bursts of religious enthusiasm, or what historians call Great Awakenings. The present “American awakening” that Mitchell describes resembles the Protestantism of the American past insensibility but attaches itself to secular goals, such as racism or the environment. It has all the energy of past Great Awakenings, but this energy is directed towards an apocalyptic vision of earthly redemption.
Mitchell is not the first writer to diagnose America’s spiritual imbalance in this fashion. Joseph Bottum’s brilliant 2014 book An Anxious Age made a similar argument (at the time I reviewed it in The American Interest). As a Catholic, Bottum looked at the post-Puritan foibles of secularized religion with indulgent irony; Mitchell, a Protestant, gives us the insider’s tour. The two books are complementary.
The loneliness of American democracy drives us to embrace identity politics, Mitchell argues. Uniquely among American political writers, Mitchell perceives that it is the atomization of American society that drives the search for identity. To be American is to reinvent one’s identity, something that immigrants to America (or at least their children) must do, to shed the identity of the Old Country, wherever it is, and become an American. But a country of reinvented individuals is necessarily a “lonely crowd,” in the sociologist David Reisman’s phrase. Mitchell observes, “It has been long understood—as early as the 1830s, when Tocqueville wrote about it – that as we become more disconnected and our lives get smaller in the democratic age, the temptation to make distinctions between others and ourselves grows. When we are lost in the lonely crowd, we look for ways to distinguish ourselves. Our imagination wanders, and our pride demands more than numbing anonymity. Surely, we are more than a flickering soliloquy that emerges out of nothing and returns to the dust. In democracies, where there is never much difference between one citizen and another, and where in the nature of things they are so close that there is always a chance of their all getting merged.”
At critical junctures in American history, the myriad of individual journeys converge upon the equivalent of a grand national tent meeting or a Great Awakening. “The First Great Awakening happened in the 1730s and 1740s; the Second Great Awakening occurred between the 1790s and 1820s,” Mitchell notes; he might have added that the American Revolution was unimaginable without the First, and the Civil War without the Second.
He adds, “We are living in the midst of an American Awakening, without God and without forgiveness. The first two awakenings brought religious renewal; the third – the social gospel movement and its aftermath (1880–1910) – invoked the authority of religion to bring about political and social transformation, but lost sight of Christianity along the way. The awakening through which we are now living comprehends politics through the categories of religion without recognizing it, has no place for the God who judges or the God who forgives, and has brought America to a dead end, beyond which no one can see. Identity politics renders judgment not based on “things done and things left undone” but on the publicly visible, unalterable attributes that precede whatever citizens might do or leave undone. Identity politics offers no forgiveness for transgressions, because they are irredeemable.”
What makes men equal, Mitchell avers, is “the radical asymmetry between God and man.” For Christians, God himself provided the scapegoat for all of our shortcomings, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed on the cross. That sacrifice, Mitchell argues, makes it possible for every man to look at every other as an equal; without it, we inevitably find a human scapegoat and descend into tribalism.
“We have lost sight of the real significance of the individual in proportion to the degree to which we have lost sight of the Christian understanding of the scapegoat,” writes Mitchell. “Should this loss become complete, we would not replace much-maligned individualism with wholesome communitarianism, but rather with the satisfaction that comes when one group scapegoats another group. We will replace it with tribalism. Although he wrote reverentially about the precious gift of liberty in the democratic age, Tocqueville understood that democratic man would find the plural world of parochial, local, and national attachments in which that liberty had to be embedded too much of an encumbrance to endure. He would wish to take flight. Having already broken free of some of the linkages that bound him to nature, to his past, and to his fellow citizens, democratic man would wish to break free from them altogether…. This democratic impulse goes too far. Citizens are, ultimately, creatures that must have a home, a family, a locale, a nation, a religion.”
Mitchell’s thesis applies to Americans, but uniquely and exclusively to Americans. The boon and bane of European Christianity is that it is embedded in national cultures. T.S. Eliot famously included in “our lived religion” the whole of culture, averring that English religion includes “Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dartboard, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.” One might add to this list, depending on country, beer brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, pasta al dente, the bullfight, waltzes with a prolonged second beat, and Swedish surströmming.
Contrary to Eliot’s expectation, the cultural trappings of European Christianity failed to sustain it after European nationalism burned itself out during the First and Second World Wars. The Europeans still have their beetroot, beer and fermented herring, but they no longer have the Christian religion. America remains a Christian country by construction, because to be an American is to become an American, and the naturalization of immigrants into America parallels the Protestant concept of Christian conversion. It all went horribly wrong, Mitchell explains, when American substituted a secularized Christianity which identifies sacrifice and victimhood with designated ethnic or social groups.
As Mitchell explains, “The ‘identity politics of innocence’… has transformed politics. It has turned politics into a religious venue of sacrificial offering. Ponder for a moment, the Christian understanding of sacrificial offering. Without the sacrifice of Christ, the Innocent Lamb of God, there would be no Christianity. Christ, the Scapegoat, renders the impure pure – by taking upon Himself ‘the sins of the world.’ In purging the Divine Scapegoat, those for whom He is the sacrificial offering are purified. Identity politics is a political version of this cleansing, for groups rather than for individual persons. The scapegoat identity politics offers up for sacrifice is the white, heterosexual man. If purged, its adherents imagine, the world itself, along with the remaining groups in it, will be cleansed of stain.”
As I argued in a 2016 essay, the individual American journey towards a goal unattainable in this world is a religious gesture so powerful that it has come to dominate American popular culture: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, every cowboy that ever rode off into the sunset and every private detective that disappeared into the urban nightscape, every character played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and their ilk – all are avatars of Bunyon’s Pilgrim. America generates great bursts of enthusiasm and accomplishes great things, and then settles back into a spiritual torpor from which it has awakened only in crisis. The American Revolution was followed by 60 years in which the slave interest controlled the national government. Then Abraham Lincoln was elected improbably, by a minority vote in a four-way presidential race, and persuaded half a million citizens of the North to lay down their lives in a religious war to end slavery.
After this terrible sacrifice, America turned away from Lincoln, to the Social Gospel and complacency. It was shaken out of this complacency by the World Wars of the 20th century– two hot ones and a Cold War – and emerged in 1989 as the world’s only superpower. The emergence of evangelical Protestantism as a decisive force in American politics during the administration of Ronald Reagan and the great migration of Americans away from the mainline Protestant churches to the more enthusiastic evangelical movement might be considered a fourth Great Awakening.
Now America finds itself in a quasi-religious awakening that, paradoxically, has turned the sensibilities of American Protestantism against America itself. The penchant of the Woke practitioners of identity politics for self-invention is a clownish parody of Christian self-invention, but it is practiced with equal passion. America began with a mandate for its citizens to reinvent themselves as Americans. It may end with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s declaration in the 2015 Obergefell decision, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”
Mitchell’s argument is obscured by an epilogue bemoaning the social and political consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, which in his view empowers a technocratic elite and erodes the social relationships on which society is founded. “Armed with the informational bits that global testing and monitoring will provide, the global managers will be able to develop and coordinate a plan to vaccinate the whole world. Until they develop a vaccine, citizens should stay indoors, connect to the Internet via the computer operating systems Microsoft and Apple provide, order their quarantine supplies online from Amazon, meet their friends on Facebook, go to work through Zoom or its equivalent, learn everything they need to know through Google and entertain themselves with Netflix.”
There is no question that natural disasters that require large-scale state intervention provide occasion for abuse by powerful people. Nonetheless, the United States logged close to 3,000 deaths per day from Covid-19 during the past couple of weeks, and the long-term health consequences of the disease for many survivors appear serious. The sad fact is that all of East Asia brought the pandemic under control, in part because Asians are less concerned with expressing their identity than are Westerners, and more likely to follow instructions. Global testing and monitoring well may be “an affront to democracy,” as Angela Merkel called it, but without it, Asia well may emerge as the dominant force in human civilization. If that occurs, the Christian epoch will come to an end, and neither Prof. Mitchell nor I would like what would follow it.